Women Conserve Water in Drylands

Water management


In a dry valley in South Africa, 40 women have reclaimed an unused valley and turned it into a green, fertile place. Like a scar on the body, a yawning gulley above their project site is a stark reminder that erosion once ravaged this piece of land. What is their secret? How were these women able to change the valley? It is quite simple really. They found techniques to trap water and keep it in the ground.

Here is what the women did. Listen carefully so that you can benefit from their experience.

The women of a small village in South Africa called Luphisa had a piece of degraded, infertile land with a large gulley running through it. Sometimes a lot of water flowed quickly through the gulley, but very little moisture stayed in the ground. And much of the precious soil was washed away in this fast, heavy flow of water.

The women wanted to trap more water in the ground, and make the land fertile for farming again. They knew that there are two good ways to reduce erosion in a gulley. One is to reduce the speed of the flowing water. The second way is to reduce the amount of flowing water. A lot of fast flowing water has the strength to erode soil. The women began by reducing the speed of the water flow. To achieve this, they had to create dams, tunnels, and ponds that collected water.

First, the women built a fence around their project site. Then, they filled sacks with sand and laid them in the gulley. The sacks reduced the speed of the water flow and stopped the soil from moving so fast.

Next, the women planted trees and grasses around the bags of sand. These plants reduce the speed of the water flow and hold the soil together. The women used the branches pruned from the trees for firewood and to make compost. They also covered the surface of the soil in their garden with branches from the trees. The branches help protect and keep moisture in the soil.

Then, to reduce the water speed even more, the women dug two ponds called collecting pits at the centre of the project site. The main collecting pit has a spillway so that water overflows into a second pit further down the slope. The women planted grasses around the ponds. They planted grass and trees at the entrance of the first pond to help filter out sand and debris as the water flows through the ponds.

When the first pond is full, water spills over into the second one further down the slope. When the second pond is full, water flows into the valley below and soaks into the ground without causing much erosion. However, only a small amount of water flows out of the second pond because the women draw the water there and use it in many ways.

One way is for watering their shared garden. The garden beds surround the ponds. Each woman has a plot in this shared garden. The edges of their plots are marked with a row of leucaena trees. The women designed the garden beds so that they collect and hold water. The beds are raised and shaped like a horseshoe. The women fill the pit at the centre of the horseshoe with compost or litter. Water from the bed and the paths around the bed flows into the pit. The kind of bed prevents rainwater from flowing away. Instead, it sinks into the ground.

The women collected goat manure from around the homesteads and spread it as fertilizer. They also collected grass and leaf litter from the roadside in the village and from the project site. They covered all the garden beds using the grass and leaf litter. This cover, also called a mulch, prevents water from evaporating.

To make sure that the project would have water for most of the year, the women built two tanks that hold water. One tank was above the ground and the other below ground level. They built these tanks near the first pond. Then they covered the top of both tanks to prevent the water from evaporating. They designed a system of gutters to

move water from the roof of one of the buildings on the project site to the water tank which is aboveground. The aboveground tank is covered with a concrete slab. Water that overflows from this tank goes into the underground tank. The underground tank is covered with bamboo. Water overflowing from the second tank goes to the pond further below.

The women built a series of channels so that they could collect water from all corners of the project site. The channels lead to the underground tank. They dug the channels at a gentle slope to prevent erosion. Then, they hung a series of empty orange sacks across the channels to filter the water as it flows through. The sacks collect debris, such as leaves and twigs, before the water enters the underground tank.

You can learn from the success of the women’s project in Luphisa. Remember what they did to trap water on their land.

First, they placed sand-filled sacks in the gulley to reduce the speed of the water flow and to filter debris from the water. They planted grasses and trees around the sandbags to reduce the water speed even more, and kept the soil firmly packed.

Then, they built two ponds or collecting pits. Again, they planted grasses and trees at the entrance of the ponds to filter sand and debris out of the flowing water. To ensure a year-round supply of water, they also built two storage tanks

The women use water from the second pond for their daily water needs, especially for watering their flourishing shared garden. They sell the vegetables that they produce in the village. Not too long ago, the women of Luphisa would have thought that all this was impossible.


  • This script was researched and co-written by Livai Matarirano of FINESA in Zimbabwe and Karoline Hanks of Inforeach, South Africa.
  • This script was based on an interview with Mr. John Nzira, a permaculture expert from Zimbabwe. He works for the South African Department of Environmental Affairs and Tourism in the Environmental Education Division. He has started many successful permaculture and food gardening projects throughout Mpumalanga Province.

Information sources

  • Permaculture: a designer’s manual, Bill Mollison, 1988. Tagari Publications, P.O. Box 1, Tyalgum, NSW, Australia, 2482.